Can a Four-Year-Old Understand ‘Character’?

WR - Gr1 hand on back“Character” is often defined as the moral makeup of an individual. It’s  who a person truly is when others aren’t looking. Character is what you do, not what you say you do.

Many private or independent schools place a dedicated focus on character education. And when schooling starts as early as the Pre-K level, parents might wonder how a rather complex concept like character can be instilled in a child as young as four.

Building character is a lifelong process, and there are many ways for parents and teachers alike to begin incorporating character-building lessons at an early age. These lessons can and should be tailored around the developmental stage of the child–and it takes a special teacher and special kind of learning environment to make this possible.

Private Pre-K or Kindergarten programs may use lessons, stories, or demonstration designed to illustrate the following traits in the following ways–as just a few examples:

Generosity: A four year old is slowly moving beyond the selfish stage where everything is “mine, mine, mine!” Because he’s just becoming aware of how to be selfless, he may need a little encouragement to grasp the idea of sharing. While he may not be ready to part with his favorite blanket, he is ready to understand that if he allows Tommy to play with his truck, Tommy will allow him to play with his airplane.

WR - boy showing concernCompassion and empathy: To help a four-year-old boy understand these complex traits, teachers may identify the feeling by describing a crying child as “sad,” and then asking the boy what he could do to help that child feel better. Teachers may praise empathetic behavior, and let boys know how their actions affect others in terminology they will understand, such as, “When you didn’t allow John to play with your toy, you made him feel as though you didn’t trust him. Would you be sad if John didn’t allow you to play with his toy?”

Courage: Making friends is an important achievement for a four year old, and a good way for teachers to demonstrate courage. A teacher may congratulate a boy on showing courage by introducing himself to another young boy. A typical four year old has developed basic reasoning; if he fears something, offering a simple explanation can often help him rationalize his fear and help him become courageous. For example, if a boy climbs halfway up a slide ladder and becomes scared, a teacher (or parent) can tell him that they thought it was scary the first time they climbed the whole ladder, too. They may explain that the rest of the climb will be the same as the first part of the climb, and that they are nearby to help the boy.

At home, parents may want to take note of several general concepts that can make lessons more effective:

  • Be consistent. If you insist that your four year old share his Halloween candy, but his older sister doesn’t need to share her popcorn during a movie, you may be sending confusing, mixed messages.
  • Practice what you preach. Whether you are a teacher, parent, or grandparent, you need to set examples to an impressionable, young, four-year-old mind. Copying is the basis for many habits, especially ones formed at that young age.
  • Capitalize on each and every teaching moment. Talk about positive and negative behaviors of your child and those of others. Use books as with character-building morals as reinforcement of your lessons.
  • Don’t try to teach him beyond his developmental abilities. Your message won’t get through, and it will only lead to frustration.

Through lessons taught at home and in the classroom, and experiences in daily life, children as young as four learn what character means every day.

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